Once upon a time there was a young man who had no home and no family. His life was a life lived on the road, traveling from place to place, finding work whenever he needed it and adventure even when he didn’t. His only companion was an old gray horse, who through some long ago mistake had been named Black. The young man’s name was Peter, which means Rock and was a much more fitting name.
A traveling life makes for many stories, but the greatest tale of young Peter’s life started with a small creek and a fishing line. Peter had always been an excellent fisherman, so whenever he had nothing else to eat, he would look for a long stick, tie on his string and hook, and catch himself a fine supper. On this particular evening, the fish were biting well, and Peter had just caught enough for a feast when his eye fell on something glittering among the rocks on the bottom of the creek. Without a second thought, he reached down and pulled up a sparkling glass bottle with a red cork in it. The sight of this bottle was so amazing that Peter immediately dropped his line of fish. It wasn’t the lovely shape of the glass or even the brilliant color of the cork that caused such astonishment; it was what was inside the bottle. This bottle didn’t hold wine or vinegar or water. It didn’t even hold a perfect model of a ship. It held a princess.
Peter could not believe his eyes. Inside the bottle was a princess so tiny and so beautiful that he thought he must be dreaming. As you can imagine, he lost no time pulling the cork out of the bottle. As soon as he did, he heard a tiny, beautiful, but very angry voice saying, “Why did you drop the fish?! I’m starving!”
That was the last thing that Peter expected to hear. But the thought of a tiny, beautiful, starving princess was more than he could bear, so he quickly caught a few more fish and roasted them over his fire. When they were cooked all through, he broke off a small piece and dropped it into the top of the bottle. The princess ate it, quick as a wink, and asked for more. Peter passed her bits of fish through the opening of the bottle until finally she was full. She was much less angry now. She even thanked him for the food in a very polite voice.
As for Peter, he was not at all interested in eating. He just wanted to hear how a princess came to be in a bottle. He could see very well that she wouldn’t fit through the opening. The princess told him that her name was Selina and that her father was the king of a neighboring kingdom. It seemed that her father had done something to anger his chief magician who had punished his king by shrinking his only daughter and trapping her in a bottle. Once she was trapped, the magician had carried her secretly out of the castle and thrown her into a nearby river. The river carried her far away, out of her father’s kingdom and down to this point where it dwindled to a tiny creek, and she had finally come to rest among the rocks. The king did not know what had happened to his daughter, only that she had disappeared.
“So I knew that no one would be looking for me,” finished Selina, “and I was quite sure that I was going to die of starvation in this horrid bottle. Until you came along, that is, and I saw your fish. Nothing ever looked or tasted so good.”
“Isn’t there anything I can do to help you get out of that bottle?” asked Peter.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Selina sadly. “My father’s chief magician is very powerful. I doubt that anyone could undo one of his spells, and I’m sure he wouldn’t want to do it himself.”
But Peter had not spent his life traveling for nothing. Once, several years before, Peter had met an old woman who was said to have magical powers. Peter thought he would visit her and see if she knew any way to reverse the spell.
It was a journey of several weeks to reach the old woman. Peter carried Selina in her bottle in front of him as he rode Black, and positioned her near the fire at night to keep her warm. Every morning, he baked a little cake of flour and passed pieces through the opening of the bottle for Selina’s breakfast, and every night he fed her fish or nuts or berries that he had found through out the day. They passed the evening talking and telling stories and sometimes Selina would sing one of the many songs she had learned from her mother. Those were happy weeks, though Selina was very tired of being in her bottle, and at last they arrived at the old woman’s cottage.
When Peter showed the old woman the bottle and told her Selina’s tale, the old woman sighed a very big sigh. She picked up the bottle and studied it closely. “Yes, yes,” she said. “I’m afraid there really is no other way.”
“No other way?” asked Peter. “Then there is one way at least!”
“Yes, there is a way. There is always a way. I’m sorry to say it young man, but it seems you are going to have to drink it.”
Peter was confused. “Drink it? Drink what?”
“Drink what’s in the bottle.”
Peter was even more confused. “But Selina is in the bottle. Only Selina.”
“No, not only Selina. Selina and something else.”
Peter studied the bottle closely. He couldn’t see anything in there but Selina.
“Pour it out,” said the old woman, handing Peter a cup.
Selina braced her arms and legs on the glass and nodded at Peter. Peter shrugged and tipped the bottle over the cup. A stream of dark red liquid poured into the cup, filling it to the brim.
Peter was astonished. There hadn’t been any red liquid in the bottle before. At least, none that he could see. But there it was in the cup before him. It didn’t look very tasty, but if it would free Selina, he was willing to try it. He picked it up.
“No! Wait!” shouted Selina. “You don’t know what it is. What will it do to him?” she asked the old woman.
“I don’t know,” said the old woman. “But it won’t be good. There’s no doubt that it’s some sort of poison.”
Selina was horrified. “You can’t drink it! It could kill you!”
Peter just looked at her, and his eyes were as calm and steady as a rock. He had just realized something. He had just realized that even if this poison killed him, Selina would be worth it. Still keeping his eyes only on his princess in the bottle, he picked up the cup and drank down all the poison.
The effect was instantaneous. Peter’s eyes closed, he gritted his teeth to keep from yelling from the pain. Then the pain slowly, slowly grew less and less, and the world faded from his sight. Peter was dead.
In that same moment, the glass of Selina’s bottle disappeared, and she was standing there fully grown. With a sob, she threw herself down on Peter’s chest. She cried and cried until she couldn’t cry any more, and as she cried she felt something strange. The old woman was holding the cup up to Selina’s cheek, capturing all her tears. When Selina finally calmed, the cup was full. Quick as a wink, the old woman tipped the cup and poured Selina’s tears into Peter’s mouth.
He coughed. He sputtered. Then he sat up. Selina was so happy to see him alive, and Peter was so happy to see her free of her bottle and back to her normal size that neither of them could say anything. They just sat and looked at each other happily for a long, long time.
And then they thanked the old woman, got onto Black, rode to Selina’s home, and lived happily ever after.